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A Litmus Test for Academic Freedom: The Impact of the Israel/Palestine Crisis on U.S. Universities


A protest organized by student groups at Harvard University on October 14th. Photo credit: Reuters


It has been two months since the October 7th Hamas attack, which brutalized and killed more than 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers and triggered a massive military response from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). At the date of this writing, Israel has killed more than 17,000 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, the majority of whom are women and children. As the decades-long conflict has escalated to the level of full-fledged military operation, humanitarian conditions have drastically deteriorated, which has raised international concerns and tensions over the horrendous conditions Palestinian civilians are living under.


The situation has also created a global litmus test for academic freedom, exposing weaknesses in the ways higher education institutions deal with intensely felt political protest. Many campuses have seen increasing threats against Jewish and Palestinian students and faculty, as well as others who have voiced criticisms against the actions of the state of Israel. In this atmosphere of increased tension, university administrative responses have ranged from censorship to physical harm. Students and faculty who are critical of the state of Israel say that they feel silenced by university administrations. On the other hand, Jewish students and faculty report that they feel unsafe and that there is a significant rise in antisemitic incidents.


Since October 7th, threats to academic freedom and restriction of speech have come in the form of censorship, suspensions and more. Student groups have been banned, protesting students arrested, and faculty and university presidents investigated.[1] Branches of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have been some of the groups widely targeted by universities. Brandeis University was the first to ban SJP from their campus followed by the Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s executive order, to close down branches of the SJP on university campuses across Florida.[2] Besides suspending or disbanding student clubs and associations, prestigious universities like Columbia and MIT, have threatened individual students with suspension or expulsion due to their involvement in sit-ins and vigils. University administrations also have made decisions that directly impact faculty members. In more extreme cases, some professors have been penalized by university administrations for their views. Two faculty members at the University of Arizona have been placed on administrative leave over statements they made in class. Rebecca Lopez and Rebeca Zapien, professors in the University of Arizona College of Education, were placed on paid administrative leave after clips from their class recorded them making a comparison between Hamas and the Black Panther Party, as examples of “resistance groups”. The two professors have since been reinstated, however, the Dean of the College of Education has taken over teaching their class until the end of the term.[3] These and similar incidents show why it is important to echo the message of the statement released by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on October 25th, which calls on university administrations to refrain from infringing upon the academic freedom of faculty members. So far, the manner in which university administrations have been making decisions in response to the ongoing situation reveals an unacceptable failure to understand what academic freedom means and how to protect it when it needs to be protected the most. For example, according to the report of the Columbia Spectator, Columbia University administration made changes to documents outlining university policies on demonstrations and protests on campus, following the October 7th attack of Hamas, without consulting student groups or representatives, which they then used as the basis for the suspension of the SJP and JVP. In another case, more than 150 faculty members across the University of California system have expressed concern in an open letter, objecting to the decision of the University of California president to dedicate funds to teaching “viewpoint-neutral Middle Eastern History” without consulting academics working in the field of history.[4]

 

Students and faculty critical of the state of Israel and its policies have also been individually targeted by entities outside of universities. Examples include the non-profit “Accuracy in Media” which sponsored the doxxing truck that displayed the names and faces of students of Harvard University who signed an anti-Israel open letter on a digital billboard days after October 7th. In another case, professors have been listed as “antisemites” for being pro-Palestine on a website called “Canary Mission”, which is used for surveilling the views of students and academics in US universities, and exposing those they deem to be anti-US or anti-Israel. More recently, Congress members have also started to put pressure on universities. On November 21st,  academics from the University of Indiana at Bloomington voiced concerns in a public statement over threats coming from congressman Jim Banks (R-IN) to cut funding to the university if they fail to investigate reports of antisemitism, which they believe to be a veiled threat to academic freedom.[5] Furthermore, the House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on December 5th, in which presidents from Harvard, University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced intense criticism, especially from Republican representatives. In the aftermath of the hearing, UPenn’s president Elizabeth Magill was forced to resign following the backlash occasioned by her remarks at the hearing.

 

Beyond pressure, censorship, and suspension, students and faculty have also faced threats of arrest and violence. Police have arrested protesting students, mostly on trespassing charges, at Dartmouth College, Brown University, and University of Michigan. The number of students arrested at a single protest surpassed 40 on multiple occasions. Although the majority of the detainees who engaged in campus protests have been students, legal action and police interventions also target faculty. On November 29th, a faculty member at Pomona College named Arón Macal Montenegro was arrested for trespassing by the police after he took his class to a pro-Palestinian protest. Besides arrests, student groups and faculty have faced threats of harm. Across campuses there  have been physical altercations between rival student groups,  and the use of threatening language in flyers, online forums and billboards have also been reported. The danger faced by these groups have not been limited to threats, however, as was demonstrated on November 26th, when three Brown University students wearing keffiyehs were shot in Burlington, Vermont.

 

Endangered Scholars Worldwide (ESW) is deeply concerned with the recent rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia on university campuses which have elicited severe threats to academic freedom on US campuses. These threats have jeopardized the full participation of Jewish, Palestinian, and Arab students and faculty. ESW calls on all university administrations to respect the academic freedom and freedom of expression of students and faculty in order to foster open and robust discussion at a time when more dialogue, not less, is needed. We also wish to remind all members of university communities to abide by the rules of respectful, constructive, and democratic intellectual exchange.


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